HBO hopes 'True Blood' reruns will bleed green
Vampires are hot, but what about vampire reruns?
HBO will find out soon enough. The pay-cable channel is starting to shop repeats of "True Blood" to commercial cable networks. The show, which just started its third season, has turned into HBO's biggest hit since the days of "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos." About 12 million viewers tune in to each episode to watch Sookie Stackhouse and vampire Bill Compton get hot and sweaty down in Bon Temps, La., while battling evil vampires, wolves and the occasional redneck. "True Blood's" Sunday night average is about 5.5 million viewers. HBO runs the show throughout the week and offers it via its on-demand channel.
The popularity of the show should make for an easy sale. But there are some red flags that potential buyers should be aware of, and they don't all have to do with the notoriously high level of sex and violence on "True Blood."
HBO has done a very good job getting big bucks for reruns of its shows. However, the shows themselves haven't always performed as well as buyers might have hoped. The most recent example of this is Spike, which shelled out $600,000 per episode for reruns of "Entourage," only to see it struggle on its network.
"Entourage" premiered on Spike in January and since then the network has tried it on four different nights with less than stellar results.
Another HBO show that cost a lot but didn't deliver for the buyer was "Six Feet Under," which Bravo paid $250,000 an episode to acquire. It didn't last too long there, and now Bravo parent NBC Universal is burning off the purchase on its little-seen cable network Universal HD.
The money spent on those two shows is chump change when compared with the roughly $2.6 million per episode A&E coughed up for "The Sopranos." While the mob drama had a strong debut, drawing 4.4 million viewers, more than half were gone just two months later. A&E argued at the time it made the purchase that "The Sopranos" would expose the network to people who had not watched the channel before as well as bring in new advertisers. While that certainly was the case, whether that alone justified the purchase price continues to be a subject of debate in the industry.
TBS has probably had the best luck with an HBO show. It scored with reruns of "Sex and the City," which unlike the other three shows, is not serialized. While there are plots that ran throughout the series, each episode also had stand-alone stories. TBS paid about $700,000 per episode, and while Carrie Bradshaw & Co. didn't have the staying power of "Seinfeld" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," it also didn't put the network into the poor house.
Some of the challenges networks have had with repeats of HBO shows have more do to with the how serialized shows in general perform. Typically, serialized shows do not perform as well in reruns as procedural shows such as "Law & Order" and "NCIS." Reruns of ABC's "Lost" and Fox's "24" also were disappointments to their buyers.
Furthermore, most TV shows are now released on DVD long before they're available in reruns, which can also limit their viability in repeats.
But there are other issues unique to HBO shows that buyers should keep in mind. HBO usually makes at most 13 episodes per show per season, compared with 22 to 24 episodes for a broadcast network. That means whoever buys their shows can only air reruns once or twice a week as opposed to once or twice a day, otherwise they burn through the episodes too fast. That makes it harder not only to gain traction with viewers, but to make money from the shows. Spike is hoping that ratings for "Entourage" improve when it starts running the show every day this fall.
Content is another headache. Fans of the original HBO shows are often disappointed by the cleaned-up versions that air on commercial TV. That clearly seems to have been the case with "The Sopranos" and A&E. After all, one can only listen to dubbed expletives but so many times before becoming annoyed.
HBO hopes it can sell "True Blood" for $800,000 per episode. As charming as those vampires can be, cable networks should be careful about inviting them in, or else they might end up with all their blood drained.
-- Joe Flint
Photos: Top: "True Blood." Credit: Prashant Gupta / HBO. Right: "The Sopranos." Credit: Craig Blankenhorn. Bottom left: "Entourage." Credit: Claudette Barius